Letters
Winter semester, 1990

Foreword
Minutes
Touch wood
Mascara
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


brain

Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

NO-NAME SOCIETY
(Naamloze Vennootschap)

Similia similibus currantur  1

Lakefield, Qué, March 25, 1990  2

Dear Colleague:  3

"Historical and anthropological research has failed to discover any people lacking names," so tells me my trusty 1960 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 16-63Ad. It's obvious that its arrow of time is not pointing to where I am going. And, true, this observation was printed long before Dawson College first opened its doors.  4

* * *

Dawson was for many years a chearful place where everybody knew your name. But eventually social atropy and the influx of new faces began taking heir toll and an extensive population of anonymous evaluators, concerned faculty, names withheld, and sundry informers, and wall-scrawlers have come to share an acdemic freedom increasingly shrouded by the shadowy mists of our up-to-scratch Niffelheim.  5

Yes, some ideal environment we are for educating the model citizen of tomorrow. "Come to Dawson College where the facuty challenges you!" Challenge indeed. Advance and be recognized ... silentium longum .... A nice slogan for advertising and P.R. it is, but, no, the last thing many students wish, nor, I guess, many of their elders, is challenge. (I do not wish to shortchange fine exceptions as unquestionably there are.)  6

"Where are you from?" I am wont to ask students. Sometimes they stare back blindly, acting as if my question hadn't been heard. "Where are you from?" I insist. "Iran," he or she wispers. Why wisper, darn it! You are you, not Iran. Sad it is, but not your fault that your cradle has forfeited esteem among the nations. Heck, we aren't doing so great ourselves. We, too, have our bigots and spitters-in-the-eye of, both, commercial and political stripe. You came here to learn, did you not? To improve your mind. Just hope that your learning will serve a good purpose and make a marvellous adornment for topping a strong backbone. Our country can use that.  7

* * *

Backbone? Personality—ah! Did someone mention Freud the other day? "In essence ... all schools of psychology are in agreement on this point, intones by old E.B., 17-610b "The question is put, 'Why does a specific personality in this particular fashion?' All reply, 'Because of the past experiences in the individual's history'." Call it he Second Law of Turmoil Dynamics: We are fated to be captives of our past. Or in a vernacular more easily assimilated, It's easy to be an asshole. All it takes is the right background.  8

Given the Second Law (civil version), would it not be a good idea, with so many people new to this country, to display how things are done and viewed and resolved in the best of Canadian tradition, or traditions? Might that not lessen or prevent the renting of a social fabric woven from personalities otherwise far too divergent for social peace? What is the point of the coming to college if students are going to spend the rest of their life fighting one another tooth and nail?  9

That quote from Project 2061 (ref. Mascara, March 4) offers genuine hope:  10

"Successive reorganizations of one part or another of people's ideas usually result from being confronted by new information or circumstances. Such reorganization is essential to the process of human maturation and can continue throughout life."  11

So, let's confront them with information or circumstances perhaps new to them. Let us as a faculty not merely pass on such bland knowledge as we are paid for to dispense, but let's spice it with a modicum of bearing and wisdom drawn from the Canadian communal treasury. There is more to eduation than knwledge.  12

The encouraging fact is that many do. But, then again, there are those who do not. Posted on a college notice board, close to the Dean's grey area, was hung one of my letters on which, scrawled in red, HENRY, PLEASE STOP. That the outcry was left unsigned shows once again how yellow red can be.  13

* * *

Let me call her Madeleine. ("Religious tolerance, political liberty and social change have affected to motives of anonimity ...," says my E.B., 2-7b.) Madeleine was in my Chem-111 class last year. Precisely what moved her I am left to guess, but a few weeks before term's end she wrote a letter of complaint, a catalogue of complaints, really, about my callous and bigoted way of conducting classes, treating students like dirt, sexist behavior, and so forth. She had the letter signed by 13 fellow students and took it to the Dawson ombudsman.  14

Now, I must tell you that at Dawson people are not always quite what they seem to be. Our ombudsman is not really an ombudsman. The truth is that instead of applying his personal arts to mediation, the Dawson ombudsman is a passer-onner. In all fairness, let it be stated that he has his instructions, from the Executive Committee of the Dawson College Board of Governors. He copies each written complaint, replacing signatures by such comment as Signed by 14 students, and passes this Sword of Damocles to an academic sector dean, who—ah!, you guessed it—is not really an academic dean.  15

* * *

The early effect of Madeleine's letter on me, I must admit, was pretty near devastating. A letter as filled with accusations as this one an signed by fourteen students cannot be readily dismissed. In the quiet of the night every accusation became true. Every comment called up a memory of an event for which an apology was too feeble and those students' view tantamount. Any comment that was demonstrably wrong could only be a bygone. The letter portrayed me as things really were, not the way I liked to see them. It is the students who have to suffer me and, therefore, only their perception counts. I simply was not fit to teach any longer. Things used to be alright, but the generation gap had become too wide. Educationl psychology teaches us that no student can learn from a teacher whom he or she hates. How, then, could I further inflict myself on these people? I had to go.  16

Writing can clarify the mind. I got up from my black thoughts and turned on the computer. The words I put on the screen wavered in the refractional light of the CRT's pale light.  17

* * *

The morgenstond heeft goud in the mond. How a new day always refreshes, even after a bad night. This thing was clearly out of whack. I reread the letter, carefully this time, and tried to evaluate its components. This item was incorrect; thatwas out of context, and an adjective does not an accusation make.  18

Within a few days it also turned out that nearly all students had signed under peer pressure. They did not want to appear chicken and, what the heck, when in Rome .... Eleven of them had not read the letter they so complyingly signed.  19

One student had become frightened. Several times she slunk up to me to assure me her name was not on that letter. That was not what someone else had told me, but I guess she felt the brunt of my wrath at exam time. She wore a smooth black dress, tight over a feline body; her lips and nails were a full red. I couldn't stop it from crossing my mind, Nature! Red in tooth and claw!  20

When after the exam I confronted Madeleine, she feigned surprise. Then she turned indignant. "My letter was supposed to be confidential," she cried. Nobody had betrayed her, I lied. Frankly, I had no need for what I had gathered from her peers. You see, nobody could turn a phrase as well as she did.  

* * *

I demanded that the ombudsman or the administration arrange for a written apology. Not so much to assuage my feelings, but to protect me against further repercussions. In the first place, those now so meek might well become roaring lions and by their behind-my-back commentary generate classroom problems the next semester. More serious than that, however, is the air of administrative terrorism that pollute's the college's working climate.  22

The Directeur des Services Pédagogiques allowed me to talk things over. He didn't seem overly sympathetic to my problem. He himself got many complaints, he told me, even some that might affect his career.* My mind drew to that Board meeting. "No. Dawson does not apologize," he said. Does mot every cloud have an underlining?*  23

* * *

That concern about perceived administrative terrorism turned out to be not unwarranted. The next term had hardly begun and I received a copy of a letter, dated September 27, 1989, addressed to the Chemistry Department Chairman:  24

I hav been receiving comments from a number of different people ... some of the things that are happening in the courses taught by Henry van Eyken ... can be summarized ...  25

... a lack of coverage of topics ... a seeming lack of preparation for the class ... feedback indicates a general disorganization within class pertaining to the presentation of material ... a seeming lack of availability to students ...  26

The feedback to me is beginning to occur each semester and is no longer received only from students ...  27

Pray, admit! Not even I write like that. The damnable lie of beginning to occur each semester! And about those non-students, who were they? The dean stonewalled at first. Then it came: "Members of the faculty of your own department." Names? No names.*  28

Thàt's my dean! I thought. Yet another example of how to destroy any vestige of respect and trust at Dawson College N.V.  29

(name withheld)  30


N.B. (July 30, 2018)
About ganging up on a faculty member, my experiece was nothing compared to that of Prof. Steven Galloway at the University of Columbia. Accusations against him (about sexual assault) led to his dismissal. His incredible story is found here. Eventually he was awarded a $167,000 settlement for wrongful dismissal.


Footnotes, added in 2017

A pointed tit-for-tat? His expected promotion to Director General had not come through at the time; another person, from outside the college, had been appointed instead. Probably as a consequence of me speaking up at that meeting of Dawson's Board of Directors, see my first "Letter," Minutes. It turned out that this person did not last long. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that intrigue against him played a role.  *   fn1


There was a case when I badly misjudged my students (and the laboratory support staff). For one session, I had decided that laboratory time would not be spent going through a set of scripted exercises, but that students would be free to do some lab investigations into something of interest to them. It became an unruly disaster. Firstly, it was not in them. Secondly, it broke the simple routine of the personnel looking after laboratory equipment. Anyway, we managed to get through it, but would never repeat it. I also could guess a faculty connection to the Dean about this. But guessing what goes on behind one's back is not a substitute for knowing.  *   fn2

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